There’s an awful lot going on in the Chilean childhood nightmares of Alejandro Jodorowsky — much of it tragic, some of it borderline Monty Python, in nature. His flying circus comes with freakish sideshows that involve cross-dressing midgets and a tag-team Battle of the Amputees — a surreal “Dance of Reality,” indeed.
Mr. Jodorowsky’s celluloid visions are nothing if not ambitious, as well as scarce: just seven films in 45 years. His perverse cowboy epic “El Topo” (1970) — Peckinpaw on Latino steroids — catapulted him to a cult fame that led, in turn, to obscurity. Now, after a two-decade hiatus, the 85-year-old auteur returns with an intensely intimate memoir that also serves as a metaphorical political history of Chile as well as a philosophical meditation on life and death. No mean agenda.
It is set (and shot) in tiny Tocopilla, a coastal village on the edge of the Chilean desert, where Jodorowsky spent a miserable childhood under the thumb of his brutal Jewish-immigrant father, Jaime. Papa reveres (and dresses like) Stalin and is, in fact, the comrade-in-chief leader of the town’s wacko Communist cell. “A man must be brave,” he tells son Alejandrito. To win dad’s admiration, the boy must endure beatings that break his teeth and then submit to the dental repairs without anesthetic.
Starring: Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores.
Rating: R in nature for graphic nudity, violence and adult themes.
Little Alejandro’s mom, meanwhile, is a buxom diva who never speaks but croons every word she utters. With her son, it’s rather sweet, a la “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” With her abusive hubby, it’s — well, less than sweet. When Jaime forces sex on her beneath the watchful eye of a Stalin poster, she SINGS her orgasm.
You get the idea. Reality for Jodorowsky is not objective but a "dance" created by the imagination. And as dances go, this one is truly macabre. In gentler moments, it’s Fellini-esque, reminiscent of “Amarcord,” with touches of Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude” magic realism. But Tocopilla makes Macondo look suburban-tame. My favorite scene: After the death of the Tocopilla Fire Brigade’s dog mascot, Alejandrito is named the new mascot, against his will. Soon after, in a funeral procession, the star on the boy’s uniform climbs up onto his face. He freaks out. The anti-Semitic townsfolk mock him as a coward: “Even dressed up as a fireman, a Jew is a Jew!”
Father Jaime, meanwhile, tries to save local plague victims by bringing them water, but they take his water and then eat his donkey. New plan to save the poor? Go to Santiago and kill the dictator Ibanez, who loves only his horse Bucephalus. But a rival Commie gets in the way and botches the assassination at a presidential dog show, where the music is provided by a string quartet of nuns ...
OK, I’ll stop with the plot. See it to believe it, or not.
The terrific performances are (almost) all in the Jodorowsky family: The director’s three sons Brontis (as Jaime), Cristobal (as the crazy Theosophist) and Adan (as the Anarchist — and original music composer!), plus Alejandro himself as himself in old age. Plus fabulous Pamela Flores as the diva-mother. She has several serious arias and multiple nude scenes and is surely the first legitimate opera soprano ever to urinate on her leading man. She and young Jeremias Herskovits as Alejandrito both deserve not just Oscars but Purple Hearts — and maybe the Nobel — for what this film puts them through.
But, oh, the delicious images — of dead fish and birds, for instance: “Should I suffer the agony of the sardines or enjoy the feast of the gulls?” The passing priest, who deposits a tarantula in a beggar’s outstretched hand.
Not too subtle — but powerful.
“Where will we be at the end of time?” Mr. Jodorowsky’s old-age incarnation asks. “Will our consciousness still need a body?”
In that regard — and in regard to the shocking themes, nudity, and everything else in this film —- director Jodorowsky doesn’t play by any American sensibilities or Hollywood rules. This “Dance” is fascinating but rough going and viewing, a kind of surreal semi-cine-opera.
Mr. Jodorowsky's infamous, aborted attempt to film Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel “Dune” in the 1970s (with Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Gloria Swanson!) was recently chronicled in Frank Pavich’s acclaimed documentary.
That doomed project, like this successful one, was exploding with images and ideas —ultimately, provocatively joyous.
It’s the damnedest dazzling dance I’ve seen in a long time.
In Spanish with English subtitles. Opens today at the Melwood Screening Room, Oakland.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: email@example.com. First Published July 24, 2014 8:00 PM